Voice, democracies and planetary boundaries: three priorities for Human Rights Day 2022

Anna Triponel
5 min readDec 20, 2022

Just last month, a little girl, Vinice Mabansag, was born in Manila. She became the 8 billionth person on this Planet Earth. Vinice — and the other 7,999,999,999 on the planet before her — has human rights. People have rights — simply by virtue of being born, and regardless of whether their governments want them to or not.

The term ‘human rights’ can feel overwhelming. It conjures to mind UN corridors, government negotiations and geo-politics. Yes, human rights are endorsed at the highest levels by all governments within the UN system. But at the same time, human rights are also so simple. At its core, ‘human rights’ is about the essence of what makes us people: that we feel respected, treated with dignity, and valued for who we are.

This is what we celebrate on Human Rights Day every year.

Each year, I speak about vital considerations for companies on this day where we celebrate human rights. One could speak this year about the growth in poverty and inequality of workers. This year is the first time in the twenty-first century that real wage growth has fallen to negative values. Workers are earning less than before — they are now seeing the impact of the severe inflationary crisis, the global slowdown in economic growth, the war in Ukraine and the global energy crisis on their pockets, and their livelihoods. And as tends to be the case in these situations, the hardest hit as workers on lower incomes and their families, who were already the most vulnerable.

One could speak about the growth in health challenges in the workplace. At any point in time, around 1.5 in 10 adults of working age have a mental disorder. On the back end of a global health pandemic — coupled with all the other stressors people are facing — resilience is low, and mental health challenges are on the rise. Companies are contributing to this mental health crisis by paying too little attention to workplace mental health risk factors, ranging from workload and work pace, working environments, company cultures and work interpersonal relationships. Mental health sits alongside physical health challenges, with the prevalence of long hours at work increasing substantially over the last twenty years, which in turn has led directly to a rise in heart diseases and strokes.

Or one could speak about the persistence of entrenched discrimination. The murder of George Floyd in the U.S. at the hands of a white police officer sparked the global realisation that discrimination is deeply entrenched in our systems. Yet, two years on, we are nowhere near dismantling the entrenched structural, institutional and societal racism that has existed for centuries. It remains significantly harder to live and work as a person of African descent — as it does being a person who identifies as LGBTQIA+, a person who has a disability, or a woman — amongst a number of factors that make working life much harder for some people. Recent figures show that we will have parity between men and women in over a century — 132 years to be exact.

There are so many human rights issues one could speak about. And yet, I come back to the three considerations I discussed three years ago: defenders, legislation and climate. Through my work, I see, again and again, that voice, democracies and planetary boundaries — and the growing attacks on them — are at the root of why we are in the human rights crisis that we are in today.

Take voice. Voice is under attack. Every other day someone gets killed for seeking to defend their land and human rights. Close to 2,000 people killed for being an environmental and human rights defender in the last ten years — and this number is likely higher. And this does not include the hundreds of Indigenous peoples, environmental activists and other land and environmental defenders subject to violence, criminalisation and harassment worldwide. And this year, attacks on the core labour rights that give workers voice — the rights to a trade union, collective bargaining and free speech and assembly — are at a record high, with four out of five countries blocking collective bargaining, and one third of countries violently attacking workers.

Take democracies. Democracies are rapidly backsliding. Dictatorships (both closed autocracies and electoral autocracies) are on the rise, and now 70% of the world population (5.4 billion people) live in a dictatorship. The last 30 years of democratic advances have been eradicated, and we are back to 1989 levels of democracy. And this trend is set to continue, as a growing number of democracies backslide, with growing repression of dissent and voice, and rollbacks on democratic freedoms.

Take planetary boundaries. These are the planetary systems identified by scientists Johan Rockström, Will Steffen and others that we need to protect for our own stability. Planetary boundaries continue to be transgressed. When it comes to climate, if current emissions levels persist, there is now a 50% chance that global warming of 1.5°C will be exceeded in nine years. The planetary boundary for freshwater has now been transgressed. And we have seen a decrease of 69% of wildlife populations in the past 50 years. And with these climate and environmental impacts come impacts on people: a rise in diseases, heat stress and re-location, amongst many others.

All of this is connected — like so much is in life. The shrinking of democratic freedoms and spaces for voice encroaches on the ability of people on the front lines to safely tell us about impacts on people and planet, which in turn hinders our ability to tackle the climate, nature and human rights crises. To put a spin on Martin Niemöller’s words, first they came for the environmental and human rights defenders, and then we don’t know what happened next.

But judging from the hundreds of reports I have read this year, we do know that it is not a pretty picture. The human rights situation for billions around the world will get steadily and progressively worse and worse. It’s a very unsettling feeling, to look into the future and to know that the lived experience will become harder for so many, with those the least responsible for the root cause of the crises the hardest hit.

Yet, we are a generation with a significant privilege: it is in our hands — and in our hands only — to touch upon the rights of billions of people, now and into the future. Science shows us that the changes we make over the next few years will impact us for centuries to come. We only have a few years left, but we can do it. With privilege comes responsibility: a responsibility to do whatever we can to transform the systems that are at the heart of the crises we are in. The urgency could not be more urgent.

Just like Vinice, we are all born with human rights. We owe it to ourselves, to our fellow communities, and to future generations to advocate for our rights and those of others. So this human rights day, ask yourself: what action can you take today to be part of the solution for tomorrow?

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Anna Triponel

Business & human rights advisor. Empowering companies to be human rights confident. Founder of Human Level. https://www.wearehumanlevel.com